A tribute to the father of Bridge Day

Saturday, October 21 marked another glorious Bridge Day. Hundreds of BASE jumpers and rappellers came from around the country, as did thousands of sightseers. It was a poignant moment, too. Burton Ervin— the first man to parachute from the New River Gorge Bridge— died days before the festival.

Here is a tribute to this BASE jumping pioneer.

A leap of faith

On August 17, 1979, Burton Ervin made history. At the time, people thought he was a goner, too. But the Army veteran ignored their doubts. He knew it was possible to parachute from the New River Gorge Bridge. And the Webster County native wanted to be the first to do it.

BASE jumping during the 1970s was exotic. Most people had never heard of such a thing, much less contemplated it. The 876-foot-drop wasn’t just another stunt, either. Locals and parachutists alike thought the bridge was lethal. Height aside, Ervin would have to avoid turbulent rapids and angular boulders.

Nevertheless, he had faith in his calculations. Bolstered by that American “can-do” spirit, the mine foreman took the plunge at 10:20 p.m on August 17. The inky night engulfed him, obscuring the black river beneath his boots. Approximately 200 locals watched him from the shoreline. Some held spotlights. Most held their breath. To their amazement and relief, Ervin emerged from the darkness— intact and victorious.

How a festival was won

It wasn’t long before other daredevils wanted to leap from the New River Gorge Bridge, too. The height and exhilarating scenery made it irresistible.

That’s when Ervin thought about having a BASE jumping festival. As he saw it, the event would encourage legal parachuting. The local authorities must have been swayed. A year later, the Fayette Chamber of Commerce founded the first-ever Bridge Day. The 1980 ceremony began with 2 skydivers and ended with 5 BASE jumpers. Eccentric and thrilling, Bridge Day captured America’s attention.

Bridge Day today

Since then, BASE jumping has gone further than Ervin probably imagined. Roughly 400 parachutists glide from the bridge every year. Hundreds of rappellers tackle the immense bridge while tens of thousands of mesmerized spectators watch. Thanks to Ervin, Bridge Day has become West Virginia’s largest single-day festival— and one of America’s most unique events. We only wish he could have celebrated with us this year. The 82-year-old veteran died 2 days short of the New River Gorge Bridge’s 40th anniversary.

Rest in peace, Erwin. May you continue to soar.